CULTURE

Empathy for Incels

Separating the venom from the genuinely pained and human core of inceldom could be the first step in saving society from the vileness of incel ideology and saving some of these lost young men from themselves.

Original image from lookism.net

Technically speaking, dating is easier now than it has been at any other point in human history.

Even in the early 2000s, a person's relationship options were largely limited to the people they knew through work, school, or their local community––meeting new people meant going to a bar and hoping to click with whoever happened to be there that night. Today, the options are limitless. Dating apps like Tinder and Bumble expand potential relationships from social circles to entire cities. On the modern dating circuit, everything is public and everyone seems to be hooking up. But in a hyper-connected world, people who can't seem to make connections feel lonelier than ever before.

Incels are people who self-identify as "involuntarily celibate" and participate in an online subculture marked by rampant sexism, hate speech, and conspiratorial thinking mixed with intense self-loathing. It's easy to write them off as just another group of entitled, mostly-male reactionaries who are angry about the modern equality movement and the increased social clout women are gaining. After all, the political landscape is rife with those (see Gamergate). Considering the type of rhetoric commonly found on incel forums––expressions of admiration for the "Supreme Gentleman" Elliot Rodger are not uncommon, for instance––anything short of outright condemnation of the entire incel subculture can be seen as condoning a dangerous hive of radicalization.

And yet, while incel ideology is dogmatic, dangerous, and inherently flawed, recognizing that the experiences they stem from are overwhelmingly human––pain, loneliness, social anxiety, and self-loathing––might bring to light new solutions that could lead incels to genuinely recovering and reacclimating into modern society. So, too, could the acknowledgement that incels aren't just born from dangerous, sexist feelings of entitlement, at least not at first, and while their larger ideology certainly sits upon a heap of misconceptions, there might be a kernel of truth somewhere at the bottom.

The Cut recently published a phenomenal article about incel plastic surgery, a growing trend whereby incels seek cosmetic surgery to fix perceived facial flaws in order to become more "Chad-like." To clarify, incel subculture calls the most attractive men, who "hoard" most of the world's sex with women (or so they believe), Chads. Chads are men with square jaws and prominent brows, but they can also be lithe or vampiric as long as they possess an aesthetic that Stacys and Beckys––attractive blonde women and basically every other kind of woman, respectively––typically find hot.

zac efron shirtless Zac Efron, total Chad. MCCFL / Splash News


While some incels who opt-in for this kind of cosmetic surgery experience a noticeable difference in their lives afterwards, specifically in the way they're treated by others, many find that their lives don't change very much at all. The core subject of the article, a man who uses the alias Truth4lie, is stuck in an endless cycle of surgeries, post-op elation, discovering a new flaw, suicidal ideation, and then more surgery. Ultimately, his account suggests extreme body dysmorphia, an isolating mental illness far more likely to cause "involuntary celibacy" than his perceived physical flaws.

In fact, the most standout revelation upon browsing many incel forums is that the users––on the rare occasions they post pictures of themselves for critique––are usually pretty average looking guys. Granted, many of them are not, but they're not hideous or grotesque either. Countless men who are just as "ugly" by conventional measures of attractiveness can be found on dates in every restaurant in every major city. So, then, what's really "wrong" with incels?

incel chin The difference between an incel and a Chad according to incels.reddit.com/r/incels

The answer most likely varies from person to person, but chances are high that two common scenarios account for most members of the community. The first is mental illness and neurological atypicalities, which manifest in multiple ways that could lead to "inceldom." One, as outlined in The Cut's article, is body dysmorphia. Others might include social anxiety, depression, or autism––anything that causes one to feel isolated or leads to confusion regarding social contacts. The second is the possibility that these individuals are genuinely physically unattractive and don't have the proper tools or social skills to make up for that disadvantage when dating.

The underlying issues for both groups of incels––and there's likely a good deal of overlap between the two––make their initial involvement in incel communities all the more understandable. Connection with others is a core human need, and long-term loneliness can lead to severe mental and physical repercussions, from insomnia to suicide. For people in circumstances like these, incel communities offer support and a soothing––albeit incorrect––scapegoat for their problems.

"The black pill" is the incel community's core ideological offering: the fatalistic, sexist "truth" of biological determinism––that unattractive men are simply doomed to be rejected by the selfish, shallow creatures known as women. Black pill ideology is repugnant and patently disproven by every single average and below average-looking guy in a healthy relationship. But for someone who has convinced himself that his face is the bane of his own existence and for whom every glance in the mirror is a brutal takedown, black pill ideology shoulders the burden of rejection through absolute affirmation. Black pill ideology says, "Yes, you are ugly, and no, your lot can't be changed." For someone struggling and failing to climb out of a dark, deep, lonely pit, that kind of affirmation, however damaging, can seem like a ray of light.

Perhaps, then, the best solution to dealing with inceldom is offering that same sort of empathy and understanding to struggling people before they turn to incel communities in the first place. The most common "normie" advice (which is always derided by incels) is that if someone wants a girlfriend, all they need to do is "hit the gym and take a bath." This suggests that the core problem incels suffer from is poor hygiene and bad lifestyle choices. But while this may be true for some incels, hitting the gym and taking a bath won't solve deep-seated psychological ailments, pervasive neuroses, or self-hatred.

The truth is that dating is significantly harder for people with mental illnesses or social anxiety. And dating is way, way harder for physically unattractive people. That being said, attractiveness is not stagnant or binary, and plenty of traditionally unattractive people find love and hold successful, lasting relationships with people who subjectively find them attractive. The solution is not to demonize incels for their flawed reasoning, but rather to destigmatize therapy for men, along with undoing so many other traditional, rigid standards that dictate what is and isn't "masculine." Ideally, with genuine empathy and support structures in place, incels wouldn't become incels in the first place.

Unfortunately, incel communities aren't just limited to sad affirmations––empathy would be a lot easier in that case. Black pilling naturally leads to anger and resentment, mainly directed towards women. These views compound and fester within echo chambers, oftentimes resulting in genuine hatred and, sometimes, real-world violence. But separating the venom from the genuinely pained and human core of inceldom could be the first step in saving society from the vileness of incel ideology and saving some of these lost young men from themselves.

Culture Feature

Post-Ironic Media: How We Memed A President Into Office

How irony functions in the Information Age.

In November 2018, a bunch of Internet trolls banded together to combat their greatest existential threat to date―"thots."

They united beneath the banner of #ThotAudit ("thot" stands for "that ho over there") with the stated goal of reporting girls with premium Snapchats to the IRS, based on their assumption that online sex workers don't pay taxes. Their "movement" picked up steam on Facebook, then 4chan and various corners of Reddit. Proponents delighted in sending "thots" harassing DMs and sharing screenshots of completed IRS tip forms.

Even infamous pick-up artist Roosh got in on the campaign, encouraging reports with a tweet highlighting a 30% cut of any profits retrieved from IRS tax dodgers as the result of whistleblowing.

All of this ultimately culminated in absolutely nothing. There wasn't a single confirmed case of a #ThotAudit tip leading to an IRS takedown of a sex worker. All the outrage simply ended up being yet another excuse for angry right-wing men to harass women, much like #Gamergate.

But perhaps this shouldn't have been a surprise, considering the entire effort started as a cruel joke. While David Wu, the conservative Facebook user who started the whole thing, definitely believed in the ideology behind #ThotAudit. He never thought anything would actually be reported to the IRS. In essence, it was just a "troll idea" until someone actually did it, at which point it became a legitimate form of harassment and everyone who was "just trolling" was still entirely on board.

At the same time, subreddits dedicated to making fun of right-wing reactionaries had already started making their ironic memes. But in many of the related threads, something strange happened––some people were responding to the satirical memes unironically. For example, in this thread from r/gamersriseup, a subreddit predicated on users roleplaying as "gamers" who think they're being oppressed by society, one person responded to a presumably ironic post about #ThotAudit by asking, "why is this subreddit unironic now" and received over 40 upvotes.

While the entire debacle played out through small spats on niche corners of the internet, it nicely illustrated a much larger point playing out all across society: the decontextualization of ironic media.

Irony Is Not Dead

Despite the phrase's commonality, "irony is dead" is an incorrect assessment of a complex phenomenon.

If irony truly were dead, that would mean people were no longer utilizing ironic humor or interest in ironic culture. That, of course, is patently untrue. Everything from the existence of ironic meme subcultures to the prolific status of bad movies stands as evidence to the contrary. People still love ironic media, especially in more niche parts of the internet. The problem is that due to the nature of the internet and the unfettered access it gives to people from all walks of life, ironic media can no longer be trusted to remain in its ironic context. Instead, we get "post-ironic media"––press that may or might not have initially been ironic, but functions as genuine regardless.

Take r/gamersriseup for instance. While the subreddit is explicitly intended to make fun of right-wing "gamer" reactionaries, at least 40 people saw one such "ironic" post about #ThotAudit and genuinely thought, "yeah, that makes perfect sense." In that capacity, to those 40 people, r/gamersriseup was unironic in spite of its intent. In other words, an ironic sub unintentionally pushed the exact sentiment it was making fun of due to certain users earnestly believing said sentiment.

This begs the question: does the intent behind content creation matter if people are going to interpret it seriously anyway?

Does Intent Matter?

"Ironic media" exists purely within the context of its consumption. For instance, a poorly made movie can be viewed either ironically or unironically. An unironic viewing might point out the ways the movie fails and deem it "bad." Whereas an ironic viewing would specifically relish in the movie's failures through the lens of "so bad it's good." Ultimately, the enjoyment and appreciation for the movie doesn't derive from whether or not the director intended the movie to be "good" or "bad," but rather how the viewer approaches it.

That same sentiment can be applied to any form of "ironic media." If a non-racist person makes a racist meme ironically to show how stupid racists are, there's a good chance that their non-racist friends will view the meme as similarly ironic. There's also a good chance that an actual racist would see the meme, agree with it, and reshare it unironically with other people who would agree. The result, regardless of the original poster's intent, would still be spreading racism.

The Internet's greatest benefit is also its most significant drawback––everyone has access to everything. This means that even when something is posted in a community meant entirely as a joke, such as r/gamersriseup, someone will always approach it sans context. Short of completely closed and controlled environments, creating and sharing ironic content still runs the risk of genuinely spreading ideas you disagree with.

The Larger Context

On 4chan, Donald Trump was always a joke. That's not to say many people on the forum didn't support him––they did, rabidly––but these users weren't in quite the same boat as the middle-aged Christian conservative boomers who voted for Trump. 4Chan users were generally younger and more internet savvy. It's not that they didn't support Trump genuinely––again, they did––but rather they enjoyed the entire Trump presidency through a layer of irony. It's similar to how someone else might view a "bad" movie in a positive light because of how funny they found it. To be clear, the users' racism, sexism, and homophobia were absolutely real, but Trump was a meme, a big joke intended to piss off liberals and "globalists."

That's why when Trump won the election in 2016, they bragged about memeing a president into office. In this capacity, many Trump memes were created ironically, at least in the sense that the person making them didn't necessarily believe the content. Instead, the intent was twofold. Within the 4chan community, a solid Trump meme would inspire laughs from like-minded people who "got it." Outside the 4chan community, the meme could be targeted at and shared by "normies" (4chan's catch-all term for normal people functioning with ease in mainstream society) who either agreed with them and believed the content genuinely or disagreed with them and were therefore "triggered."

So while the number of eligible voters on 4chan might have been largely insignificant, (or at least too insignificant to matter in a national election), their understanding of the internet and its many subcultures gave them extensive reach––enough that they really might have influenced the election by targeting "ironic" memes at people with no barometer for irony.

Post-Irony

So how do we approach "ironic media" in a post-ironic culture where everything can be shared and re-shared far beyond its point of origin?

Ultimately, ironic media isn't going anywhere. Ironic jokes and memes and communities are an inherent part of online culture. Ironically, however, irony doesn't translate well online. The sheer number of people coming into contact with any given piece of public content ensures that someone somewhere will decontextualize it and take it at face value. Knowing this, how can we ensure our irony functions as intended? How do we dismantle ideas we dislike, fully understanding that our action spreads those very ideas? There might not be a correct answer. Even when we limit ironic content to isolated communities where it's most likely to be understood, certain people always find a way to miss the point.

As such, we should always approach ironic media through the lens of skepticism. Just because you find something funny doesn't mean it was intended to be ironic, and it also doesn't mean that others will interpret it similarly. On the other hand, something automatically offensive might have been intended as a joke, so before dedicating your time and energy to a response, try to assess whether or not you're reading it correctly.

Finally, consider the effects of sharing ironic content should it be interpreted genuinely. In certain dedicated communities (ironic meme forums, for instance), the chances are high that most people engaging with the content will be in the same mindset as you. But if not, if people take the material you're putting out at face value, is that something you're okay with? Is that content worth the possibility of spreading ideas and sentiments that might be at odds with the ones you actually hold? Maybe it is. Only you can decide.


Dan Kahan is a writer & screenwriter from Brooklyn, usually rocking a man bun. Find more at dankahanwriter.com



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